How hard to press down on the fretboard?

I’ve been struggling a lot with how much force my left hand (the fretting hand) should be applied when playing fast, and in general. I’ve heard many people say that using the lightest possible touch is best, but I’m not sure how to square that with really advanced famous people who seem to play really hard (Steve Vai, Guthrie Govan, etc.) To me it seems like these guys sometimes play very aggressively, so is it a matter of always maintaining a light touch with the fretting hand and using the picking hand to dictate power? Are the hands supposed to be decoupled like that? In my experience, when I start to play more aggressive, or when I’m nervous playing in front of other people, I start to really press down hard on the fretboard.

If it is the case that the lightest possible touch is best, what are you supposed to do for bends? Bending the sting requires a lot of force applied by your fretting hand, and I’ve observed a tendency in my own playing to maintain that force immediately afterward while playing regular fretted notes. But should I be focused on relaxing that tension immediately once the bend is over? I find that generally it’s really hard to let go of the tension in my index finger.


For most all playing, I would recommend just enough pressure for the note to sound fully / not “fret out”. Anything more than that is wasted IMO, and could potentially pull you sharp.

I would guess that any perceived aggression is more a matter of pick attack and phrasing, not due to hard fretting.

For the most part, bends will be putting pressure in the direction of the bend, not “downwards” into the fretboard.


There are two directions of force, where you go along the fret to bend, and toward the fretboard to fret.

To bend, the amount of force is determined by the required note (and string thickness and tuning).

To fret, one probably just wants to get used to not pressing too hard, as there is no benefit from a death grip. I suspect there is no reason to worry about minimal force.

What gauge strings do you play?

That’s an interesting point. I may be guilty of applying to much force into the fretboard when bending, I’ll have to examine that a bit more closely.

I play with 9-42’s with a very low action.

Really important to have a well set up guitar too. If the guitar has nice low action you can fret very lightly and get a clear note. Though for me this has come naturally with experience. Just like writing with a pencil, you never asked how hard or light should I push, you just adapted naturally and started to glide along. There are ofcourse times where you really grip the guitar hard, but thats again from experience. Your body doesn’t need rules etc… It will find a way if you let it. Should do anyway… lol

Just enough pressure to make clear notes and maintain control. You can do this with light action to medium high action. Squeezing isn’t good and will give you muscle fatigue and can contribute to injury and tendonitis.

If your action is very low, you might want to raise it a bit, that may sound counter intuitive but a little more of a tactile feel can be a good thing

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I like your use of “most” here because I think that’s important and absolutely true. For like 99% of playing a light touch is the way to go - for situations (often bluesier playing) where you want it to sound like you’re barely holding control - a bend going from juuuust off to just in, for example - sometimes using more force than you need to fret can really help add to that effect.

But, a lighter touch is more mechanically efficient, and efficient is another way of saying fast.

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That’s an interesting point, I agree that it’s counter intuitive. I’m going to try that out in the future, thank you.

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This all assumes are reasonably good setup on the guitar.

This may or not be helpful, but I’ll try.

Pushing too hard means tension - which is bad for playing in general, but horrible for generating speed. Off the cuff, it sounds like you’ve got excess tension in your form. Either from not being comfortable with the movement yet, or some inefficiency making it necessary.

It’s not good/bad…just a puzzle to solve.

I may be the exception - but I’ve never paid any attention to how hard I press. A line may start out with too much, but over time it dissipates to whatever is appropriate. If it doesn’t, and it remains difficult or overly fatiguing to play - something is usually wrong with my approach.

Beyond setup, actual fret height and neck dimensions can be a factor. I’ve spent a lot of time playing guitars with flattish-fretboards (12 inch radius or greater) and tall-ish “jumbo” or “medium jumbo” type frets. When I recently started spending time with a more traditional strat-style guitar with 9.5 inch radius fretboard radius and smaller “vintage style” frets, I feel like I sometimes need to squeeze notes a little tighter to keep them ringing how I want, especially on bends. I’m not sure if I actually have to press harder, or if I just feel like I am because of the sensation of my fingertips contacting the fingerboard more with the shorter frets.

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Bending, in particular, this has been my experience as well. I find it a lot harder to get “under” the string to get enough leverage to bend on a truly vintage radius neck (like 7.5") or with very low, flat frets. Larger frets and flatter/compound radiuses, I dont’ feel like the string is constantly at risk of sliding out from under my finger.

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I find a great exercise is playing on the strings, so not fretting them fully but just muteing your playing. Thats really close to how you’d shread stuff, and you’d go harder as needed.

And a great thing about being light on the guitar for general playing is you can move your hand into different positions easier, you can slide across the neck.

A lot of players we see are doing a light touch most of the time, but they will also go hard on the guitar as they feel it. You can play fast pressing hard, but good luck to your hand over time.
I would really recommend doing some string touching playing, rather than fretting, and when you get a feel for that you can fret as hard as you need of feel. You will feel it.

This is really good advice, yea. I’ve tried this a few times and it’s a pretty stark reminder of just how little force is actually required.

Three top players talk about it

Among my electrics, I’ve got a '52 Reissue Tele with short, narrow frets and a 7.25" radius fretboard. I also have a partscaster with a 7.25" radius neck. The others are 9.5" or greater.

I’ve never experienced what I would ever call ‘issues’ with bending on smaller radius necks, shorter frets or both together. Taller frets make it a little easier.

An ever so slightly higher string action has always remedied any concerns I felt. I suppose I’ve always preferred a slightly higher action for bending reasons. I do mean slightly higher.

I’ve heard others talk about shorter radius necks causing problems. Things like bending issues and fretting-out bends. Perhaps I’m a bit thick in the head…but that’s just never been my experience.


I would describe it as No pressure/force/squeeze etc. should be applied. Rather the weight of your finger, hand, wrist, arm, shoulder can use gravity to “push the string down” without using any actual pressure.

I would tell you to let your fretting arm, and eventually your entire body, to let go and be as limp as a rag doll or a piece of rope. Continue to allow your arm to get heavier and heavier. If you think you can’t get any more heavy, try just a little more. Now, without using the muscles in your finger/hand, let the entire weight of the finger, hand, wrist, forearm, bicep, shoulder do all the work to push the string down.

I will notice a sense of lightness in my fretting hand side of my body and it feels great.

I would suggest you do some research on the Alexander Technique

This is false. Fretting requires muscular contraction. Weight pulls to the floor, not into the fretboard.

Minimising the muscular tension involved in fretting is a goal worth pursuing, but to state that there is no exertion required is misleading and unhelpful.

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In classical guitar we’re taught to not have the guitar’s body parallel with our own, but (the bottom of the instrument) tilted away from us at angle about 30 - 45 degrees. This helps with projection since if the back of the guitar was right against our belly it hinders the natural vibration. This angle does sort of allow for the gravity pulling our fingers into the fretboard. That’s kind of situational still though.

I’d agree in a more typical electric guitar context, especially when playing standing, this isn’t possible. Maybe heavy individuals (no judgement from me, I like hamburgers and pizza) with a bigger belly would have the guitar body slightly angled outward even when standing.

This really doesn’t track. Sure, you would now have introduced a force vector into the fretboard, but you’ve created another force vector which pulls the string downwards. Now you have to prevent that downward of the string, which you cant do unless you hold your hand up, eliminating the weight effect.

Fretting requires muscular contraction. This is absolute, unavoidable fact.